How do you communicate across international differences in the workplace? 

We inhabit a global workplace. We can now leave a message for a colleague in Germany, China, Ghana, or New Zealand and perhaps give only a quick thought to what time zone they are in. We want to empower people to contribute their unique skills. How should we best interact with our global team to create a positive environment?

1.    Make sure your INTENTION matches your IMPACT. 

Even a simple head shake or a ‘thumbs up’ can mean the complete opposite to different people. If you give a well-intended thumbs up (everything is great) to a person from Greece you are actually showing an offensive gesture. When we consider more subtle language nuances, communication can become a challenge.

You have a task and each think you are in agreement over the work to be done, but in fact you are talking about very different topics. So what to do? Allow time to communicate. Seek clarity.

If verbal communication is a barrier – even with people speaking the same language – write down what you mean. Have a board for people to write down bullet points. Use nonverbal communication to find common ground. For a high-stakes outcome, initiate a follow-up via email to ensure everyone has their role clear and any problems can be identified.

Here is a quick side note on speaking the same language, yet struggling to be understood. My British pronunciation of the word water “waTER” in parts of the USA remains a source of amusement and mild confusion. I haven’t perfected the American vocabulary, or come close to requesting a glass of “waughder,” but it is a work in progress.

Keep a sense of humour (or is it humor?) around any differences and make communication a safe space – not a feared activity. Your team members may actually feel that their verbal communication is not perfect enough and that can inhibit their presentation confidence as well as speaking up in meetings. Take time to include the opinions of those that will make a difference as well as provide encouragement and opportunities to speak up (and be heard).

Meanwhile, all this talk of beverages brings us to point 2.

2.    Share a meal.

We have an International Potluck this week. Sharing a meal is a time-honored fun and friendly way to engage. Our group celebrated the Chinese Moon Festival this autumn. Pinterest-worthy, home-made red bean paste moon cake was enjoyed at work. Show an interest in the reason for a particular dish and you may be surprised at what you learn and the positive impact this has to build new commonality.

Food is just one way to learn more about a particular culture. Take note of holidays and take an interest, but do not call your team member out on it all the time. If you create a welcome space, your team member will be willing to share more. Do not put the burden on your team member to know the full history about a particular aspect of their culture. Be mindful of how you ask questions. If all they know is that their family eats this each year – you learned something new about your team member. You showed a genuine interest and if you really want to learn more – you can look it up too!

As well as celebrating who we are, what practical steps can we use to make sure we understand each other and can get the job done effectively?

3.    Email etiquette.

Your email intended for one user can become a company wide “send all” with the wrong keystroke. Email is a great source of communication when used well, particularly when your teams are in different time zones. However, the recipient only reads the words and does not get any of the nonverbal nuances that provide more context to the message.

This is a tongue-in-cheek (for amusement) comparison between two styles of email.

First, we have the brief and direct.


Great job.



Next, here is a polite and more wordy example.

Dear Fiona,

I hope you are doing well. I wanted to congratulate you on doing a wonderful job earlier today.

You are a great asset to the team and it is a pleasure to work with you.

Best wishes,


Any guesses on which style matches which country(ies)? I will let you decide.

As you are aware, different people let alone different cultures have varied ways of communicating via email. It is good business practice to be aware of the context (including culture) of who you are communicating with and make a conscious decision on how handle communications. If you are wanting to mirror your communicator’s language style – go ahead, err on the side of more formal and more respectful via email. Brief messages can be construed as lacking consideration and can be very abrupt in many parts of the world. Lengthy email can be seen as not getting to the point fast enough and filled with padding. How to win?

If you acknowledge these differences, and see the communication through the lens of the sender – you will have greater success in listening well and being understood. Also think of the time zone you are communicating with. Always want to have an international meeting at 3pm EST? Well, do not reasonably expect your Swedish colleagues to always be available. Think through and invite feedback on your plans.

4.    To aid understanding use standard language, not slang.

If you use slang, this can be a challenge to those from different regions (even within the same country). Pop = soda = soft drink = … The list goes on for names of a fizzy drink across the USA. This is not a request to ‘dumb down’ but a call to find common ground. Decide what your goal is. Is it to communicate? To walk alongside to a common goal? It takes skill to explain a complex idea in a language understood by the intended audience. Let your skills shine!

Take the time to watch for visual clues of lack of understanding and then take a step back if necessary. Double check you are being understood. Double check you are listening well.

5.    Encourage feedback.

If you want to know how the communication is going – ask. If you want to know how your colleague is dealing with the conversation and environment – ask! You may not get direct feedback at first, or it may be a word tsunami. Take time to listen, do not interrupt, offer to meet in a small group or one-on-one and give your undivided attention, block time off in your calendar. If you prioritize creating an atmosphere of trust and shared vision towards a common goal, you will positively impact your team goals. You will empower your team members to contribute their unique knowledge with greater independence and success.

Join the conversation

  • How do you communicate with your international colleagues?
  • What is your most amusing miscommunication due to cultural differences?
  • Share your thoughts below and let’s learn from each other.

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